COLUMBIA — The Missouri men's basketball team brings back almost everybody from a team that a year ago was young and exciting. But was consistently inconsistent.
The Tigers also signed a foursome of newcomers, including 7-foot Axel Okongo and three dynamic freshmen in Mario McKinney, Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown.
But the fresh face most likely to wow fans, and make the biggest immediate impact on both ends of the court, is not really a newcomer at all in transfer Dru Smith.
"He does a whole lot more leading by example than he does talking. Coach (Cuonzo Martin) really never has to say his name," sophomore Torrence Watson said Friday. "I'm not going to say he's a perfect player, but he's probably as close as I've seen."
Smith, who has starting experience across two seasons at the University of Evansville, is a very efficient shooter and passer. He's a career 42.2 percent 3-point shooter and 52.4 percent overall while averaging 3.6 assists per game and is a bulwark on the other half of the court.
"Missouri fans are really going to like Dru Smith," Missouri's lone senior Reed Nikko said. "He's a fantastic player, great work ethic. We were really disappointed we couldn't put him on the court last year, I think he would really have helped us out, but I think he's one of the biggest reasons to be excited this year."
Smith sat out last season after transferring from Evansville, a move he elected to make after the Purple Aces fired head coach Marty Simmons. His previous school and new coach did not cooperate with Smith's waiver request, which would have granted him immediate eligibility.
That's all behind Smith now, and the Tigers, with a healthy Mark Smith and Javon Pickett and true roster depth at the 1 through 4 positions, look prepared to attack the season with a fearsome array of perimeter options.
"I'm just excited to get out there with these guys, I mean, to just be in that game atmosphere, the game setting, a little pressure on you," Smith said. "It's been a long time and I'm excited to be out there."
Smith, a redshirt junior, knows there are expectations for him this year, something he was able to prepare for by participating in virtually every team activity last season except playing the games.
In some ways, those expectations are deserved. In 22 games as a sophomore at Evansville in 2017-18, Smith averaged 30 minutes and 13.7 points per game, shooting 57.8 percent from the field (62.4 percent on 2-point shots and 48.2 percent on 3s) and had 101 assists and a 1.44 assist-to-turnover ratio.
In 11 Missouri Valley Conference games that season, Smith averaged 14.4 points per game, shot 54 percent from the floor and 46 percent from 3-point range. If Smith can get anywhere close to those numbers for Missouri this season, he'll not only help the team a great deal but could break out as its best player.
His teammates did not hesitate to call him a leader Friday, citing his work ethic, communication, maturity and dedication in practice. In scrimmages Smith is "calm, under control" and playing at his own pace, according to Mark Smith, and knows how to meet Martin's standards during drills.
"Dru's a great player. He's somebody that you want on your team," Pickett, a sophomore, said. "You know he's going to do everything to help you win. And just his style of play to me is so unique, so I love to have him on my team."
Smith has the ability to be another ball-handler, along with McKinney, something the Tigers desperately needed at times last season, but he said he sees himself in Martin's offense as an off-ball guy who can make plays coming off screens. His 3-point shooting and driving and lane-finishing skill, as well as his passing ability, will likely mean Smith is not wanting for touches when he's on the floor.
Missouri's 2019-20 schedule has not yet been formally announced, but one thing is certain: the Tigers will have to wait at least another year for Utah to return the home-and-home game Missouri played Nov. 16, 2017, in Salt Lake City. The Utes released their non-conference schedule last Tuesday, with the Tigers notably absent.